My previous post asking whether it is the end of denominations generated a fair bit of conversation — on facebook especially. This post borrows and builds from there:
I believe that an accountable connection within a family of congregations is more desirable than the complete isolation of the local church. Those who follow the independent, unaffiliated congregational path find they face a microcosm of denominational dynamics just as soon as they begin multiple worship services, plant daughter congregations, try to train people for ministry, attempt to publish something or engage in missionary activity. Figuring out how to be church beyond a single worship service of a small group of people does not go away just because a church leader wants to function independently.
What we know about associational systems (i.e. a system that requires some sort of affiliation for it to work) is this–we like to form connections and give sacrificially to the bottom line of the whole when we feel like we are part of a movement–especially as it begins and if we are part of the formation.
The bad news: we are long past the formation stage in almost every denomination. Even as we form new configurations of being church together and build great big church buildings up the street from long-time middle-sized ones, old congregations and old denominations are dying at an incredible rate of wasted resource.
The good news: This way of doing church might be broken enough that we may be at the beginning of a possibility for new and more sustainable formation if leaders have a tenacity born from moral conviction, and if enough grace remains to reclaim and reform a constituency who believes in what they are doing.
Assuming there is metanoia (repentance) and a real desire to transform, here are the steps I have experienced as working:
• Re-orient the work of the denomination/region/institutions into being a resource to congregations and congregational leaders rather than entities that extract resources from congregations. Re-orienting in this way means determining what must be done and separating it from all the other things that are nice to do. Once it is determined what must be done, re-organization takes place accordingly. This is a painful surgery that tests the moral will of leaders and support of key constituents.
• Begin a system-wide study of what it means to engage in an apostle’s ministry. What are the functions, behaviors and strategies needed to care for the whole of the church and its work rather than just one’s desk in the department of their institution, or just their congregation? My experience is that very few denominational leaders and fewer pastors have read the letters of Paul, Peter or John from this point of view.
• Form a new covenant among institutions, congregations and leaders for the best practices of being in denominational life together. Those that want in ramp up to meet those mutually decided specifications, sign off on the covenant and begin participating in renewed denominational life. Time and resources flow in this new direction accordingly. Those who want out leave. Those who want in without responsibility are no longer allowed to influence the course of events.
This is a four-year or longer process that drains the bank account of goodwill, while also developing a new level of trust among those committed to something larger than themselves and their congregation or institution they represent. Many leaders do not have the sustained attention span for this. Even fewer boards do. And there is always the problem of whether the constituency that has already abandoned the formal denominational structure will actually let the leaders do this.
I’ve been involved in a couple of these that are making it through to the other side. Hopefully their experiences can help to begin creating momentum where people will choose this painful yet life-giving process rather than trying to resurrect something out of an increasingly unalterable crisis.
By the way, we need only look to the experience of the PC USA, the ELCA, Mennonite Church Canada and the Episcopalians in the last two years to see how important this conversation is becoming.